The Emotional Labor of Librarianship

Librarianship isn’t what you might call a physically demanding profession. Youth librarians do exert quite a bit of energy–I regularly hit 6000 steps during a day of book talks, and if I’m not sweating at the end of my toddler time then I feel like I’ve failed as a presenter–but compared to, say, my stint as a family farm hand or  my time as a motel housekeeper (tip your hotel housekeeping staff, please), it’s definitely on the lower end of physically demanding work.

But what about the mental and emotional work that librarians have to do? I’ve been thinking a lot lately (and always, honestly), about women’s work, emotional labor, and the mental load–that last being a fairly new way for me to consider a workload I’ve been managing for years.

When I was a preschool teacher, I remember being physically exhausted at the end of most days, but more than that, I remember being emotionally bereft. I had a dozen small children clinging to me physically and emotionally from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. They turned to me for comfort, reassurance, support, and I was happy to give it when they were in my care.

But then I would go home, and have very little left for myself. I’d given everything I had to these children, and had no one in my life who could do the same for me, other than my cat and my small group of friends. As someone who was already depleted from a childhood of living with abusive, alcoholic parents, this was not a good situation.

When I made the career change from early childhood education to librarianship, I expected that my emotional reserves would be better protected. This was true, to a certain extent, but as time has gone on and I’ve assessed my experiences, I realize my emotional workload is probably the same, if not more, because in my library work I often have to do emotional labor for management and administration as well as for my patrons.

Just being in a customer service position, and having to smile in the face of everything from indifference to hostility, can take a toll on employees, especially women. This expectation that when serving the public, or discussing important work issues with colleagues, or advocating for more staff or more money, that women will be pleasant, quiet, and calm, is damaging. This quote is about attorneys, but could easily apply to librarians:

Jennifer Pierce, a University of Minnesota sociologist, found that the expectations for emotional labor in the legal profession apply to women working in every part of the field. In other words, while male attorneys—generally speaking—are allowed and even expected to be aggressive and domineering, that does not extend to female attorneys, who are frequently penalized if they attempt to conform to these emotional norms.

To take this further, think about even the most innocuous seeming reader’s advisory interaction. Have you ever done a reader’s advisory interview with a parent who is trying to get a book for their child from a school list or list from some Educational Conglomerate, where all of the books are twenty years old and often out of print, and no other options will do because the parent has this list, and been promised that this list and this list alone is what will help their child be successful? Think on how stressful that is, for the parent, and you, and eventually the child who ultimately must read this book that is impossible to find.

Or simply helping someone with the printer, and they start telling you about how they really need to get these naturalization papers printed and submitted because they’re terrified that their spouse will be deported by the new administration.

Or having to console a school age child who is attending a library program independently, and makes a mistake on his project, and becomes inconsolable, and his parent is nowhere to be found.

Or as a storytime presenter, programmer, and outreach person, think about all of the time you must be ON and ON STAGE. It’s not just happy good fun times presenting a program or reading books. It’s 30-60 minutes of being the focal point of a group, having to shepherd kids and families from one task to another, transitioning from a song to a story to a fingerplay, getting and holding the attention of large groups of children. As an introvert, the hours I spend in front of audiences, giving of myself, needs to be balanced by enough time being on my own, and replenish my emotional well.

Think about this in terms of a profession that is made up primarily of women, but more often has men has managers and decision makers. Do they understand the toll that emotional labor is taking on their female reports? Are they even aware that it’s happening, and do they care? Is it possible to make your library’s leadership understand this issue?

I’m exhausted. Aren’t you?

edited to add: I’d be interested in hearing about this from the perspective of a librarian of color; I expect the workload there is even more intense.

 

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We Live in a World of Bad Text

 Obamacare vs The Affordable Care Act

Fake news versus propaganda . . . (one more)

Altright versus white supremacist

ripped from the womb vs late term abortion

* * *

There is power in names, in language, in how we describe things and what we call them. When female authors  write under male pen names (or just use their gender ambiguous initials); when you call grown women girls; when you describe a medical procedure in sensational and inaccurate language; when you write about people of color using only food-based descriptors you’re doing your audience a disservice and, in the end, damaging our society as a whole.

* * *

Out of all of Strunk and White’s solid words of advice, perhaps none need to be heeded more strongly these days than “[u]se definite, specific, concrete language.” What is more specific and concrete, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act? Alt-right or white supremacy? Fake news or propaganda?

* * *

When I consider the power of specific language, I remember how during an exit interview after leaving a particularly abusive work environment, I had to tell the director of the library about the unethical actions of my immediate supervisor, since those actions were largely the cause of my leaving. I told the director that by not allowing me to order a certain series of books for my teen patrons, my manager was a censor, and practicing censorship. I calmly and deliberately used those words. The director said something to the effect of, oh, don’t you think the word censor is a bit strong?

I agreed. It is a strong word. Moreover, it was–and is–an accurate word.

I was escorted out of the building by the secretary. It was a glorious feeling.

* * *

To support these specific words, we will need specific–and accurate–sources. To defend these specific words, we need to accurately record any misuse or abuse against them.

This is what we’re here for, librarians, by whatever title or name you go by. This, right now, is the call we need to answer.

“Nothing, no one, is too small to matter. What you do is going to make a difference.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet

re: the title of this post. Years ago, almost ten, I watched a show on PBS about writing, and the only thing I remember from it is the quote “we live in a world of bad text”. I have no idea what the show was or actually about; if anyone can figure it out, let me know. 

libraries are not neutral spaces, and neither is the human heart

I’ve heard it in more than one training and workshop that part of customer service is when you’re faced with an unhappy or even irate patron, you should consider what has happened in their day, their week, their life, up until that very moment, that might be causing their distress. If there is an outburst, it’s very rarely about the fine or the missing item. It’s about the coffee they spilled in their car on their commute, or how their father always yelled at them when they misplaced things, and how once they had to go to school in the snow wearing only sandals because they’d lost their winter boots.

So it goes with those who work in libraries; we all have our own stories, chains of events and people that have created the person we are today. Our stories make us. Our stories are who we are. We share these narratives when appropriate, and listen to the narratives of others when required. (I’ve said before that all library service is made up of stories.)

I’ve been thinking about people and their stories very much these days. How the narratives black soldiers live can lead them to violence. How the narratives we perpetuate about the monstrosity of black men and boys leads to horrific murders that go unpunished.

I’ve heard these stories. My father had a derogatory name for Junior Mints that I won’t repeat. He also told me I could marry any man I wanted, but not a black man, because my father didn’t want any “[mixed] grandbabies.” (My father is no longer a part of my life, for this and many other reasons).

I’ve also heard other stories. My mother told me about her home ec teacher, Mrs. Hill, a woman who my mother greatly admired and adored. Hearing positive feelings for a black person was a revelation for me.

When my little brother was still very little and didn’t know much about the world, he called black people who stopped by our summer farm stand to buy fruit and vegetables “chocolate pudding people.” We watched Alex Haley’s Queen together, and when he asked me about what was happening, I talked to him as honestly and frankly about racism as  I could. He listened, and then went off to ponder some more; my mother came in and thanked me for talking to him about it.

Yet once when I was riding the bus and a black man struck up a perfectly pleasant conversation with me about chili recipes (I had a bag full of chili fixings with me, fresh from a trip to the grocery store), I was nervous and uneasy and, while not rude, not very polite, either; and to this day I can still see his expression–a mixture of resignation and anger, perhaps?

This is why we need diverse books. This is why there can never be enough. Black boys and girls need to hear stories about themselves as brave, resourceful, funny, beautiful, charming, sad, and more; and white children need to hear the same (about children who are not white). I wish I could find it written down somewhere, but at the Illinois Library Association conference, Shankar Vedantam said that it’s been shown that it is not enough to just have a black character doing something good in a story; for most audiences, that has to be explicitly pointed out for the story to have its greatest impact, on all children.

I sometimes cry on my way to work if I see a black or brown face in the cars next to me on the road, I hope that they don’t get stopped that day, or any day. I see children in the library and I want to tell them that I see them, that I have stories for them, that their stories are worth listening to.

I’m listening, no matter how much it breaks my heart.

It’s the least I can do.

image CC (Rosa Trieu/Neon Tommy)

 

Private Lives

Or, Private Eyes Are Watching You.

Everyone (paid or unpaid) who provides governance, administration or service in libraries has a responsibility to maintain an environment respectful and protective of the privacy of all users. Users have the responsibility to respect each others’ privacy. – http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/privacy

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in public facebook groups dedicated to ostensibly professional purposes for librarians. It’s only happened once or twice (that I’ve noticed, and admittedly I can’t read every post in all the groups I peruse) but it’s been often enough and egregious enough to get me back on my blogging soap box.

It goes like this: someone will pose a problem for which they seek advice or an answer, and many people will offer this needed advice. Then, somewhere in the comments, information is leaked–the name of a library. The date or time of the situation. And, recently, a patron’s first name, coupled with many specific, identifying factors. Like this:

Screenshot 2015-12-30 12.54.11

If I knew that library, those librarians, and that person’s information, I know too much. I can’t un-know it, either. The situation I am most distressed by involves a patron who possibly has developmental delays. The tone used in the discussion was pretty disparaging.

I took a screen shot of it, which I won’t post or use. But it’s that easy. Your manager or HR department or the father of that patron could do the same thing just as easily. Most of these groups are public, and what many people don’t realize is that if your settings aren’t quite right, people can see these group posts or your comments in their own feed.

Listen: working in a library is tough. We need advice, support, a place to vent. But we also owe it to ourselves and our patrons to respect their privacy. I was heartbroken when, after initially tweeting about this nagging issue, a twitter friend of mine shyly spoke up, voicing that she sometimes worried about gossip or judgment from librarians or library staff.

Do I want to impede conversation and stop lonely librarians from getting help and support? Of course not. But I do want us to maintain our ethical integrity, and protect what’s worth protecting.

So what do we do? Not talk about these issues? No. I think there’s a way to do it without naming names or giving away too many details.

Here’s my strategy:

  1. Tighten up. Have a small, private, trusted personal learning network that you can complain, grouse, and bitch to. A group that will hold your confidence. Your most trusted inner circle. Everyone should have this. Even here, though, don’t name names. Never name names.
  2. Obfuscate. I get this strategy from Car Talk, when they would change puzzler details to make them more difficult to solve, and therefore more of a challenge. Do this with your library anecdotes and queries.  Change the details to your scenario just enough so that you’ll still get appropriate advice, but no one will be able to figure out exactly when, where, or how this situation happened. Change names-all the kids in my stories are either Billy or Suzie, and those are usually the only details you’ll get about them.
  3. Wait. Is it a pressing, time sensitive issue? Then maybe talk to a colleague in real life instead, or your manager, or your smaller, private network first. After some time has passed, you can get more input from a broader audience (but you still must obfuscate even after waiting).

 

I’m passionate and uncompromising about this subject because I am a beast when it comes to ethical behavior (in libraries and in life), but I also screwed this up very badly in my youth, and know how much damage it can do to all parties involved.

When I was in college, I worked (briefly) in the health center, as assistant to the primary counselor. I was held to utmost privacy standards. I was not to talk about anything I saw or heard in the office. I did not fully understand this, and one night I related a story to my housemates about someone I’d witnessed having a severe mental crisis–he’d been yelling, throwing magazines, crying. I didn’t name names, though, so I thought it was okay. A college staff member happened to be visiting my housing that evening, and heard my story, and reported me to my boss. I was called on the carpet, and severely reprimanded, but I was given another chance, because I was seventeen and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My boss made it clear to me how hurtful it would be if this student in crisis, pained and vulnerable, later found out that other people were discussing gossiping about his private matters. I considered how much I disliked being talked about behind my back, especially about issues I had no control over, and I told her I now fully understood the policy, and would do better going forward.

I think of that story each time I read another post where patrons are clearly identified in everything but name, and sometimes by name as well. That kind of sharing doesn’t just hurt the person in the story, it hurts the teller, too. It might be satisfying in the moment to vent or cast aspersion, but in the long run–if your boss finds out, or your library board, or the patron–that satisfaction will be cold comfort.

 

egotism vs self worth

In January 2013 I wrote a post that touched a raw, exposed nerve for many in the library world. One year later, I’m still amazed at the outpouring of reactions to that piece, and the variety of reactions it provoked. I’m also very proud of some of the projects that it inspired, including the very valuable and very amazing Storytime Underground.

In addition to inspiring big and awesome things, I’m pleased that my post articulated for a lot of librarians a feeling that they had been wrestling with for a long time, but could never quite express–a feeling that librarians who work with children and teens aren’t respected, aren’t taken seriously, and aren’t valued. And in the year after writing that post, I realized I wasn’t really talking about ego, I was talking about self-worth.

Many of us struggle with self-worth and self-esteem on a regularly basis, both personally and professionally, constantly feeling that we are falling short. I know I do. I feel guilty about something pretty much every minute of every day–about an email I didn’t answer quickly enough, or how I don’t visit my family enough, or what junk I ate for lunch because I am incapable of packing one, and on and on. When I fall into these spirals of shame and self-blame and awfulness, sometimes the only thing that can snap me out them is a thank you note from a grateful teacher, or a compliment from a coworker about a recent success. Because sometimes no matter how intrinsically and self-motivated I am, or how much I believe deep in my heart that my work is valuable and I am good at it, sometimes you just stop believing that until someone else recognizes it and reminds you of it.

The youth librarianship community has really stepped up in this area (or maybe I’ve just become more mindful of noticing it). Not a day goes by that I don’t see compliments flying on twitter, conversations full of idea sharing, heart felt “thank yous” and pats on the back. And I see more of us reaching out into different areas of the profession, staking a claim in the worlds of tech, letting it be known that we have expertise that is worth listening to.

To that end, let’s keep it going– let’s dig deeper and reach higher. Make sure to take advantage of any local and national awards, and take the opportunity to speak out about your favorite librarian. Even if they don’t win, you can certainly share with him or her what was said–and just the process of nominating someone, thinking deeply and thoughtfully about their contributions to the field, will be a benefit to both you and them.

Beyond Movers and Shakers and I Love My Librarian, I assume most state library associations have awards for librarians, so take a look and see who you can recognize. I know that my state’s awards for librarians are often lacking for nominations, so if you’re in Illinois, I plead with you to submit one. YALSA has an award for excellence in Teen Librarianship, as well as awards recognizing excellent programming. ALSC has the ALSC Distinguished Service Award, but perhaps another award or two could be implemented– youth librarianship is vast.

Are there any opportunities to recognize our fellow librarians that I have missed, especially those that are youth and teen centric? Let me know.

And thank you, dear reader, for being a friend. Next time I see you in person, the cheesecake is on me.

1985-GOLDEN-GIRLS-006

George Carlin, MLIS

Within the context of ALA policy and the professional practices of librarianship, critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment.  Similarly, use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.
http://alamw14.ala.org/statement-of-appropriate-conduct

When Carlin rattled off the seven words you can’t say on television, they gained the musicality of a poem, an incantation that summoned to mind whatever images you wanted those words to stand for. Because that’s all words are–they are symbols for larger, messier thoughts that are imperfectly expressed. Carlin knew this, and pointedly commented on how some “dirty” words were situational. Ass, for instance, was okay when it brought to mind a donkey; but it was decidedly not okay when it brought to mind someone’s posterior. Bitch was fine for dog breeders, but not for a man referring to his cruel girlfriend. Carlin, with the ribald glee of a manic linguist, tore apart these words and put them back together like a master sculptor.

Note that when he performed this piece (and he performed pieces; Carlin was know for the careful writing, rewriting, and honing of his work), he was not directing these words at anyone in particular. He was not demeaning a gay man by calling him a cocksucker. He was not attempting to intimidate an outspoken woman by calling her a cunt. He was exploring the power and impact of these words in a raunchy yet cerebral exercise that poked fun at how much power we give to these sounds that inherently have no power of their own. The only power words have over us are the power we give to them, power that is given by the intent behind them and the way we say them.

It is precisely that distinction that means that Intellectual Freedom lovers everywhere have nothing to fear from the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences. Because it is not meant to curtail lively, intense, thoughtful intellectual discourse. It is not meant for the George Carlins, Richard Pryors, and Margaret Chos of conference presenting. It is meant for furtive come-ons and anger filled insults that are designed to demean, intimidate, and take down other people. It is meant for the person who scrawls cocksucker on the picture of a homosexual keynote speaker. It is meant for the disgruntled male who calls a colleague a ball busting bitch after she adroitly points out errors in his proposed idea. It is meant for all the people who use words as weapons, which is often a prelude to physical violence as well.

Further, you need to consider that if you’re going to listen to a speaker, especially a keynote speaker, you should have some idea about their style and approach. I’m happily looking forward to David Sedaris at PLA this year, and being familiar with his work I fully expect some profanity and tales of disturbingly hilarious subject matter. For people who aren’t into that, you have the choice of not going. Most street harassers don’t afford people that sort of courtesy. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I’d like to subject you to a tirade about how much I enjoy your tits in that blouse and what I would like to do to them. All right?” Having your choice taken away is another important factor when it comes to deciding if something is frowned upon, whether it’s part of a statement of conduct or not.

So for anyone who is planning on saying “fuck ebook borrowing restrictions!” in their next conference presentation, keep that f-bomb in there. Even if someone does complain, the statement is not meant for you. Fuck in this instance is an intensifier, a rallying cry, a sharp blast designed to grab attention and incite action.

But I and many others are damn comforted that if someone tells me to shut the fuck up because they don’t like what I have to say, I have that statement as a starting point to push back and find some recourse.

And just for fun, here’s a video I found of Louis CK honoring George Carlin at the NYPL.

Baby, do you understand me now
Sometimes I feel a little mad
But don’t you know that no one alive
Can always be an angel
When things go wrong I seem to be bad
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

-The Animals, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Accentuate the Positive

negativeYou’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene

Johnny Mercer

I like being nice. It’s true. There’s nothing I like more than making a friend smile by treating them to dinner out or with a small, silly, yet thoughtful present. I’m always happy to hold open a door for someone with a heavy load, or cover a story time so someone can go on vacation. If someone seems anxious I’m happy to offer a listening ear.

I guess what I really mean is that I like doing nice things for people, which is a bit different than being nice or keeping sweet. I like acknowledging good work (like Anne Clark‘s conference program title, Aww Chute: Children’s Programming ideas with parachutes, scarves and other props), giving pats on the back, and generally drawing attention to and basking in the awesomeness of great people that I know.

Yet that doesn’t mean I shy away from the darker side of life. I’ve known trouble in my life, both personal and professional, and while it might seem easier to ignore it, we all know that it’s really so much better to address trouble head on and get it taken care of.

It’s ignoring trouble that leaves organizations with people in positions of power who should have been fired years ago. Why go through the mess and the trouble of documenting issues and firing someone when it’s so much easier to just promote him or her? Why actually address sexual harassment or discrimination in a workplace when you can just shuffle people around or promise someone a good reference if they will leave? Why bother fighting for what’s right when acquiescing is so much easier?

It’s sometimes hard to speak up when you believe something is wrong. Sometimes–rarely–you learn that because of additional information you were not privy to, the situation isn’t what you thought it was. But more often than not, it is. Your instincts are right. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. And it’s not going to change until you speak up.

Me? you think. Why me? Why can’t someone else do it?

Because everyone is thinking that. Everyone is waiting for someone else to speak up and start the conversation. And so those conversations never happen. And things never get better, and will most likely get worse.

I’ve written before about ethical courage and ethical librarianship. The best class I took in library school was Information Ethics, and ever since that time it’s been my mission to be an ethical librarian who has ethical courage.

That was all prelude, of course, to talking about Will Manley’s eloquent and carefully considered post about the ALA code of conduct for conferences and meetings, a work of such heart rending truth and shattering genius that he or perhaps the spirit of Ranganathan himself has removed it from view, to protect us mere mortals from being blinded by its brilliance.

(It’s 2014, where is that sarcasm font?)

Essentially, Will wrote that a code of conduct (which came out of many discussions about sexual harassment at conferences being a huge problem) was tantamount to censorship and an attack on freedom of speech.

But you know what it really was?

It was a small, but important, step in the right direction. A code of conduct isn’t going to end sexism, harassment and intimidation overnight, but at the very least it indicates that our major professional organization believes that its members should feel protected and safe at their own conferences and meetings. Further, it was the direct result of librarians finally speaking out. These librarians, many of whom are women, and several of whom have been brutally victimized at conferences and elsewhere, finally felt safe enough, or enraged enough, to speak out and demand some protection.

Some people said to just ignore Manley’s idiocy, to not dignify it with attention or comments. And I can understand that impulse. Hell, I could have well done without the rage inducing distraction. But I read it, and participated in the backlash, because he needed to hear that he really doesn’t understand of what he spoke.

Further, this is a man who has been given several major platforms from which he speaks for the profession. I mean, he has columns in both Booklist and American Libraries (the official publication of ALA, mind you), two publications that reach a large swath of the profession who might know nothing of the conversations on twitter, on blogs, or even, god help us, in Facebook groups. For some, his voice is a major influence…and for a man who doesn’t even really understand what freedom of speech really is to have that much influence over my profession frightens me. Between Will and the Annoyed Librarian, I don’t know whether to drink tea or hang myself.

So, yes, I dearly love to accentuate the positive, and spread joy. But for that to happen, we need to eliminate the negative–and in my view, a discussion where gendered insults are bandied about freely and in fact applauded is a huge negative in my book.

Finally, for all my snark, I do want to say that ultimately, I feel no ill will for Mr. Manley— I mostly feel disappointed that he shut down the discussion once it got thorny. That’s freedom of speech at work, sir. You can’t shut down what people say just because they don’t agree with you. That’s the easy way out. It’s much harder to listen, reflect, and perhaps even reconsider your original stance.

Will’s been at this game for a long time. I hope he comes back ready to continue the discussion. After all, if Richard Pryor, one of the comedians Manley name checked in his article, could make a comeback after lighting himself on fire, certainly Will can come back after having his comment thread set aflame by some angry librarians who refuse to stay silent any longer.

More discussion of Manley’s folly can be found here (wherein Lisa also links to more discussion).

ETA 01/02/14: Matthew Ciszek has an excellent point by point rebuttal to Manley’s folly.

ego, thy name is librarianship

cc license photo by flickr use r zoonabar
cc license photo by flickr use r zoonabar

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a bit of an attention problem. No, not attention deficit– I have a need to be, if not the center of attention, at least left of center. Even though I am an introvert at heart who needs significant alone time to recharge and prepare, I am actually happiest when I am in front of a crowd. I meet this need for attention in many ways–by working in an area of librarianship that demands that I present storytimes and other programs, by being a performing songwriter on my personal time, by writing this blog. Often these endeavors are satisfying enough in themselves, but sometimes–during dark, lonely afternoons as I type up program plans, or ponder what to write about next on the blog–I crave even more attention, but I don’t know how to get it.

Doesn’t this all sound awfully conceited? I know. It does. But I’m nothing if not honest, so yes, I’ll admit to thinking I am awesome. I think I do excellent work, and have unique contributions to make, even though I don’t have a slogan or a hashtag or a large, slavish following. Sometimes I wonder if I were a man, writing about ebooks, if I’d get more attention. But since I am a lady writing mostly about playdough and early literacy, decidedly unsexy topics in librarianship (and when did “sexy” begin to equal “intriguing” or “worthwhile” or “interesting”?) I have a decidedly smaller circle of admirers and colleagues, most of whom are my fellow unsung heroes of the library world. As a children’s librarian, if you write more about how you use books with children than you do about the books and authors themselves, you don’t get as much notice.

Perhaps it is just my sensitive ego at work, but I feel like the librarian bloggers who work with children and teens and who write primarily about programs don’t get the recognition they deserve. Storytime blogs such as So Tomorrow, Awesome Storytime, Mel’s Desk, Playing by the Book, Tiny Tips for Library Fun, Bryce Don’t Play, and Storytiming provide real, concrete advice for creating worthwhile programming, which should be the bread and butter of libraries. If all of us wrote more book reviews and less about the programs we created using those books, or why we create the programs we do, perhaps we’d get more notice. If we blogged about hot button topics like e-books for babies or stripping our children’s departments down to look like futuristic lunchrooms filled with ipads, perhaps we’d get a ton of traffic. But we don’t. We write about our quiet successes and failures, about the simple craft of creating a flannel story, about what rhymes will fit with certain themes, and when we do review books, it’s always with an eye to How will I use this with a group of children? When we get dressed for work, it’s always with a thought about how easily we’ll be able to get up and down from the floor during storytime, and whether or not sweat will show if we’re doing a lot of jumping songs that day.

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship (Swiss Army Librarian being a rare exception, with his marvelous ref questions of the week). These men spin elaborate fantasies about librarians being information rockstars who dress to impress (either flashily or with an eye to ironic hipsterism), dismiss librarians who still use books to connect with patrons as hopelessly backwards, and come up with gimmick after gimmick to get libraries “noticed” without ever once writing about a concrete, applicable thing that they have actually done. Show me how libraries and librarians are amazing, don’t just tell me and expect me to be convinced.

I’m on very precarious ground as I write this, because honestly, my main motivation is that I am sad that I am not more recognized. [I really regret this sentence right now! While I, personally, do want to be recognized, more than that I want my tribe–kid and teen librarians who work so damn hard with little to no recognition in the wider library world–to be noticed and appreciated. Which they might be. I’ll admit to not being able to read everything ever printed about libraries. JJ 01/16] I want to be noticed. I want people to listen to what I have to say. I want to be offered speaking engagements, to have a larger platform to  discuss my ideas of how to better librarianship, to be valued. I want to win awards. I crave approval and recognition, and yet, to paraphrase Lillian Hellman, I cannot and will not cut my librarianship to fit this year’s fashion. I don’t particularly care about e-books, only that I wish we could give our patrons what they want. I don’t particularly want to shove ipads into the faces of babies and toddlers because I still believe screen time is ultimately damaging. I don’t really care to have the perception of librarians go from shushing bun heads to strutting pimps. (I think Frank Zappa* is a better rock star librarian model than any rapper, but that’s just me. Like Frank, I believe in free speech, showmanship, and being a decent human being. Like Frank, I think you can push the envelope of expression without being hateful to women.) I like books, and I believe librarianship is about books, if you stop and think about how books equal stories, and it doesn’t matter what goddamn container they come in, be it paper, digital, audio, or a film or a video game. Stories are what people crave, and stories (like the storycorp partnership with libraries, or the not so new resurgence of reading aloud to adults–and adult librarians, if you need help on reading aloud, you know who to ask) are what libraries have and always will do best.

So next time you need a keynote speaker, perhaps consider one of us librarians who spend most of our time on the floor–often literally. Our subject matter might not be “sexy”, but we know how to tell a damn good story.

*”If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” – Frank Zappa

Stifled: or, the exact wrong way to think about storytime

Oh, dear sweet baby Picard Jebus, there’s a rage making thread on pub-yac about a children’s department being forced to do all of their storytimes the same. Here’s a quote:

[…A]ll the storytimes for one age group should be the same because:
Patrons get disappointed when they can’t get into a certain storytime because its registration gets filled.
Using personal props, puppets or flannels is shunned because you may leave the library one day and the library patrons will be familiar with those items that were personally yours.
If you are out sick, another librarian will need to cover the storytime and the patrons will be disappointed if “Miss Tina” isn’t there and the librarian covering the storytime will feel bad, because the group is disappointed.
That the staff of librarians have different levels of performance ability and because of  that they should all work together to be about the same or at least contain the same materials.

My first flippant thought was, “Welcome to Camazotz storytime. All storytimes are equal. Now for 1.5 minutes of literacy time.” My second, equally flippant thought was, “Sounds like Amendments 211, 212, and 213 got passed at this library. Soon we’ll be seeing library job postings for a staff Handicapper General.”

When I was still working as a preschool teacher, there was a big movement away from genuine praise–instead, we were supposed to say things like “You did it!” No qualifiers, the only thing we talked about was done and not done. Which also ties in with our current climate of “Everyone’s a winner!” “A+ for trying!” And I can understand the impulse. You don’t want kids or people to feel bad. But by making everyone equal, we’ve done the exact opposite– when we don’t allow children, or staff members, to find out what they excel at, then we have a society full of people who aren’t really good at anything. Not allowing people to fail has caused so many people to never find out what they are truly good at, and by making everyone equal, we’ve inflicted a great injustice on many.

Equality isn’t about what we are–it is about how we are treated, and how we are utilized in society. Those who have talent and work hard at developing and applying it should be lauded, of course, but not at the detriment of others.

Forcing more talented staff to perform at the level of your least talented staff is demoralizing for all involved. Why would anyone do this? I think a smarter approach would be for your staff to try out presenting different programs to different groups and seeing what works. Not every group wants or needs a high energy, jazz hands style presenter. I actually think baby time/lapsit benefits from a calmer, more methodical approach, perfect for shyer or perhaps older librarians.

If you end up with a staff member who is incapable of successfully presenting to any group, in any style, well, then, that’s another discussion. But stifling the creativity and joy of your other staff to meet imagined needs of a public is simply poor management. If I were working with whomever created those guidelines above, I’d be on the lookout for a better situation.

This situation also reminded me of Mel’s recent, excellent series on the elements of storytime, which is as elegant and perfect and precise as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I highly recommend anyone who currently performs storytimes or wants to in the future read the entire series. And library school educators, you might just want to incorporate it into your curriculum–with proper credit, of course.

Be The Change

What we need is toolkit for dealing with these roadblocks. Some ideas to get us safely started. I want to make change but am so overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in my system, I’ve no clue where or how to start. Maybe for your next post?
Thanks for helping keep me inspired and energized about my career!

Even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m way behind in terms of emotional development. My childhood and young adulthood were beyond dysfunctional, putting me at a severe disadvantage when it comes to interpersonal relationships. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to feel that I’m somewhat equipped to handle the world in an emotionally appropriate way. This isn’t to say that I have all the answers, but I have learned many lessons, the most important being: you can’t control anyone but yourself. This is true for any relationship you’ll ever have, personal, professional, and everything in between.

So when it comes to putting together a toolkit for being awesome, that’s where you need to start–with yourself.

Take care of yourself.
Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise, water, and things to eat that are whole and fresh. Get massages when and if you can afford them, or take a yoga class. If you work at a desk, get up every twenty or thirty minutes and walk around a bit.

Speak up for yourself
If someone’s making you feel uncomfortable, threatened, afraid, or just plain icky, speak out. Be polite, be courteous, but be firm. If you need something to accomplish your job–and make sure it is a genuine need, not just a want–ask for it. Any time you speak up, make sure it is from a place of calm. Don’t be afraid to be passionate, but you don’t want to come across as an emotionally unstable harpy, either. Make sure to document any problematic interactions you have. If things have to progress to official channels, you’re going to want things written down and dated.

Educate yourself
If there’s no professional development money, do the next best thing–converse on twitter, read blogs, or ask your boss if you can go visit other nearby libraries to network and gather ideas.

Make an example of yourself
Be awesome in public. Go above and beyond, even if your coworkers snipe at you and no one in administration seems to care. You’re going to know you’re doing a good job, and when it comes time to make a move somewhere better, you’ll be able to speak passionately and truthfully about how you’ve helped your patrons. If you have tons of ideas you’re unable to implement, blog about them–perhaps someone else will be able to make it happen. While that is really not as satisfying as doing it yourself, at least someone will benefit from your wonderful idea.

Easier said than done, sometimes, but these are some guidelines I try to follow in my own life. What about you? How do you handle soul-sucking workplaces, tiresome red tape, and general unawesomeness?

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi
Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 – 1948)